It seems to be an annual tradition: At the conclusion of the regular season, the ACC women's basketball coaches claim the conference is the strongest it has ever been. This year, they might be right.
As the ACC tournament begins today in Greensboro, N.C., a number of teams could walk away with the title. North Carolina is the top seed. Duke has won the last five championships. North Carolina State is playing its best basketball. Florida State is a surprising contender. And the local teams -- Maryland, Virginia and Virginia Tech -- have as good a chance as any to make a run.
Where: Greensboro, N.C.
Favorite: Even though Duke has won the last five ACC tournaments, North Carolina enters as the team to beat. The Tar Heels swept their series with the Blue Devils this year, winning the regular season title for the first time since 1997. They have the ACC defensive player of the year, Nikita Bell, and first-team all-ACC selection Ivory Latta. Maryland and Florida State were the only ACC teams to beat North Carolina this season.
Dark Horse: North Carolina State had a rough start to the ACC season, losing by 13 to lowly Clemson in its second league game. The Wolfpack's other three league losses -- two to North Carolina, one to Duke -- were by a combined eight points. Tiffany Stansbury (Riverdale Baptist) leads the team in rebounding (7 per game) and is second in scoring (11.4 points per game).
Local Angle: Maryland limps into the tournament having lost three of its last four ACC games. The Terrapins have been an inconsistent team this season. They knocked off North Carolina by 15 and only lost by three at Duke, then closed the season with losses to Virginia and Virginia Tech.
Virginia needs only one win to reach its first 20-win season since 2000. The Cavaliers overcame an early February swoon to win three of their last four games and earn a first-round bye. Virginia hasn't won an ACC tournament since it won back-to-back titles in 1992 and 1993.
Virginia Tech is making its first appearance in the ACC tournament. The Hokies, who left the Big East after last season, won three of their last four ACC games by an average of 26 points. Their only loss during that span was a triple-overtime defeat at Florida State. Virginia Tech averaged more than 88 points and shot better than 55 percent from the field in its final two games.
First round, today: No. 8 Georgia Tech (13-13) vs. No. 9 Miami (12-15), 11 a.m.; No. 7 Virginia Tech (17-10) vs. No. 10 Wake Forest (14-13), 6; No. 6 Maryland (19-8) vs. No. 11 Clemson (8-19), 8.
Quarterfinals, tomorrow: No. 1 North Carolina (24-3) vs. Georgia Tech-Miami winner, noon; No. 4 Florida State (23-6) vs. No. 5 Virginia (19-9), 2; No. 2 Duke (26-3) vs. Virginia Tech-Wake Forest winner, 6; No. 3 North Carolina State (21-6) vs. Maryland-Clemson winner, 8.
Semifinals, Sunday: Early quarterfinal winners, 1; late quarterfinal winners, 3.
Championship, Monday: Semifinal winners, 7:30.
-- Kathy Orton
"This is going to be an incredible tournament," North Carolina Coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "I think this year we've all made each other a lot better. . . . I think our teams will do really well in the [NCAA] tournament this year because we've all prepared each other and made each other better."
It is not just the coaches who think the league is tough. The latest WBCA/Summerville Ratings Percentage Index poll, a measurement of a league's strength, ranks the ACC as the second-best league behind the Southeastern Conference. Seven of the top 20 teams in the RPI poll are from the ACC, led by third-ranked Duke.
"There's no doubt in my mind that this is going to be the best conference tournament that we've ever had in my tenure at Clemson," said Coach Jim Davis, in his 18th season. "Parity is here. I don't think there will be a single game that is not a very fiercely contested basketball game."
Sixth-seeded Maryland opens the tournament against No. 11 Clemson in an 8 p.m. first-round game today. Although the Tigers (8-19, 2-12) finished the season with only two ACC victories, they gave the Terrapins a scare in their only meeting this season. Freshman Ashleigh Newman sank seven three-pointers, scoring a career-high 21 points, to help Maryland escape with an 87-82 win on Feb. 6.
The Terrapins made 11 three-pointers against Clemson, an unusually high number considering Maryland made the fewest shots from beyond the arc in the ACC this season. Those outside shots were available to the Terrapins because Clemson focused its defensive efforts on ACC rookie of the year Crystal Langhorne, who had 12 points against the Tigers.
But the key for Maryland won't be how many shots it makes from the perimeter or underneath the basket, it will be defense. The Terrapins haven't put up much resistance lately, and their opponents are taking advantage. Virginia Tech shot 58 percent from the field against Maryland on Feb. 24, and Northern Colorado made 16 three-pointers.
"We've got to come out and defend," Maryland Coach Brenda Frese said. "We did not do a good job [at Clemson] defensively against them. We gave up too many points."
Fifth-seeded Virginia earned a first-round bye. The Cavaliers don't play until Saturday's 2 p.m. quarterfinal against No. 4 Florida State.
Virginia enters this year's tournament in a much different place from a year ago. Last season, the Cavaliers finished 13-16 overall, their first losing season since 1977-78, and didn't receive an NCAA tournament bid for the first time in 20 years. Virginia seems assured of an NCAA berth this season, regardless of its performance this weekend, but Coach Debbie Ryan isn't looking past the ACC tournament.
"We want to go into this tournament with all eyes focused on the ACC and the ACC alone," she said. "If you're ready for the ACC tournament, you're going to be ready for the NCAA tournament."
Virginia, which leads its series with Florida State, 26-4, upset then-No. 24 Florida State, 77-62, in Tallahassee, Fla., on Jan. 31. Roneeka Hodges, a transfer from LSU, leads the Seminoles in scoring at 18.7 points per game.
This is a whole new experience for Virginia Tech, which left the Big East after last season. The Hokies had a rugged first ACC season, but seem to be peaking going into the tournament. They have won three of their last four, including a 90-45 victory over Miami.
"It's an adjustment for us, but the whole year's been an adjustment for us," Coach Beth Dunkenberger said. "We're not looking at it as a disadvantage. We're just excited to be there."